Better Living With Technology

Navigating the profits and pitfalls of modern screen time

The Rules Every Couple Needs to Set

It's time to have a talk about technology in your relationships.

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Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, but it often brings complications as well—especially in our romantic relationships.

One major issue for modern couples is something I call techno-incompatibility. When a couple is techno-incompatible, they have different values, perceptions, or behaviors about the appropriate use of communication technology. For example, a couple may disagree on whether it is appropriate to call or text to discuss a relationship issue, or they may have different ideas about what is appropriate to share about the relationship on sites like Facebook. Tension or conflict may arise because of these differences in expectations and practice.

Why are modern technologies problematic?

As relationships develop, we share time in mutually enjoyable pursuits. Media use can be one of those shared hobbies. A stereotypical date consists of dinner and a movie. A common ritual for couples is to find a television show both enjoy watching. Other couples connect in virtual worlds, playing video games together. Mobile phones are typically highly individualized. Compared to traditional media, using one’s cell phone is more like reading—a solitary activity—than watching TV, which can be a group activity.

Thus, using a mobile device in the presence of our partners is taking what could be shared activity time and diverting it, even in short spurts, to a solitary pursuit. We interrupt “our time” with “me time,” and for some, these interruptions are frequent and persistent. Depending on the status and level of understanding in the relationship, these interruptions may be problematic.

Indeed, a common complaint on first dates is that the other person used his or her phone throughout the evening. Most people interpret it as a sign that a date is not interested, or is just rude, because they are spending their shared time mentally, if not physically, elsewhere. Although checking your phone or sending a quick text might seem like a mindless activity that barely detracts from your conversation, you may be sending nonverbal messages to your potential partner: My time with you is not valuable, special, or interesting enough for me to put “me time” on hold.

These problems aren’t just for the newly dating, however: Most established couples have not had explicit conversations to establish relational rules about technology use. Partners instead may observe each other to test the boundaries of what is acceptable. Let’s say Rob and Jenna go out for dinner at a restaurant. Rob notices that as they sit down, Jenna takes out her phone and leaves it on the table. He interprets this as a sign that texting, taking calls, or checking the internet in the middle of the meal is acceptable behavior. So he, too, places his phone out on the table. After they order, he gets a text from a friend and starts a text conversation. He then goes on Facebook to check out his friend’s recently uploaded pictures. Meanwhile, Jenna sits alone, increasingly irritated that Rob is spending their night out talking to someone else. Unbeknownst to Rob, Jenna had only set her phone out in case there was an emergency at her workplace. Rob scrolls away, oblivious, until the food arrives. Jenna fumes throughout the meal and gives Rob the silent treatment for the rest of the evening.

A simple conversation could have averted this hostility.

Establishing Relational Rules

The most effective way to combat techno-incompatibility is to discuss the issue with your partner and establish mutual rules for using technology. Whether you’re newly dating or securely entrenched in your relationship, here are some guidelines:

  • Discuss when it is acceptable to use a cell phone when you're together. Make a list of your common shared activities: eating at home, going to a restaurant, driving in the car, watching TV on the couch, watching the kids, lying in bed in the morning or evening. Do you find it acceptable to be on the phone at any or all of these times? Is it healthy or productive for your relationship if you use the phone at these time? If you disagree, determine an acceptable compromise (e.g., only if it’s work-related; or in bed in the morning but not before going to sleep).
  • Communicate your rules to others. If your mother has a habit of continuing to call you until you pick up, make sure she is aware that you and your partner have agreed on interruption-free time. If your friends constantly text and expect instant responses, let them know that when you’re spending time with your partner, their chat will have to wait. The more others respect your “our time,” the fewer interruptions you'll have to manage in the first place.
  • Communicate special circumstances that may necessitate phone access. There are reasons you will not be able to free yourself from your device: you’re on call for work, your sister’s about to deliver a baby, or your kids are with a sitter. When such issues require an exception to the rule, let your partner know; don’t assume he or she always remembers your obligations. Note, too, that this does not license you to use your phone throughout the evening but just for the agreed-upon purpose. (You may want to assign a special ringtone to your office, your immediate family, or your sitter so you can otherwise ignore the phone.)
  • If you’re unhappy, let your partner know. There is no app for mindreading. If your partner’s phone use is bothering you, kindly ask them when they’ll be done or if they can put it aside. Don’t glare at them, get on your phone to silently retaliate, or make passive aggressive comments expecting them to interpret your wishes.
  • If your partner asks you to put your phone down, do it. Relational rules only work when both partners abide by them. Don’t sigh or huff or complain, and don’t say “just a sec” and continue texting for five more minutes. Take it as a compliment: Your partner wants to spend quality time with you and you alone.

Jesse Fox, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at The Ohio State University and director of the Virtual Environment, Communication Technology, and Online Research (VECTOR) Lab.

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